Whilst travelling to nearby Waterford City, County Waterford, Ireland last week, I came across a big banner adverting nitro coffee. The caption was “It’s coffee like you have never known”. True. But I think I can explain it a little better than that. (And please understand, I will refer to the production of nitro coffee in terms of an artisan coffee roaster who uses kegs to deliver the product to the customer).
What is nitro coffee?
Nitro coffee is brewed coffee (which may be cold brewed or hot brewed) that is chilled, poured into kegs and infused with nitrogen gas. It is poured from a stout beer tap looking just like a Guinness both in the pour and in the glass….here we go…this is nitro coffee….
Now, who wouldn’t want one of these after a hard workout, a tough bike ride, a night on the rave, a tough day at the office…..or maybe just chilling on a warm, summer afternoon?
The nitrogen produces a golden head atop the nitro coffee. It should be there until the drink is finished. It also gives the drink a far smoother, better mouthfeel than ice coffee. More on that later. Overall it should taste like you’re drinking coffee velvet. Okay, better stop there. I’m getting a little carried away….
How is nitro coffee made?
As mentioned above, nitro coffee is brewed coffee which is then chilled and filled into kegs (usually cornelius kegs). Here is what a cornelius keg looks like…
Once filled, the cornelius keg is connected to nitrogen gas. Infusion of the nitrogen into the chilled coffee takes place usually over a few days. What pressure of nitrogen gas is added…or how long before infusion into the coffee is deemed complete….are all trade secrets for the nitro coffee producer. But the overall process is pretty much the same.
From there, the kegs are then delivered to a wholesale customer (like a coffee shop) where a kegerator is generally used to dispense the nitro coffee. What is a kegerator, you may ask…funny you should ask….here we go…
The 20 litre keg sits inside the kegerator. It is connected to the stout beer tap seen on the chrome draft tower atop the kegerator. Nitro must be poured at the correct temperature and pressure. Imagine a warm, flat Guinness versus a chilled, fresh Guinness..get the idea?
Alternatively, especially suited to bars, Raven nitro coffee can be dispensed from an OTC (on the counter) fridge unit using a smaller keg……
When did nitro coffee first appear and where does it come from?
Many a soul in America shall claim to be the originator of nitro coffee. Believe whichever one you will. More importantly, around 2012, the first signs of nitro coffee began to emerge. Generally, I believe this came about through a combination of individual innovation and a need for the Specialty coffee industry to come up with an alternative to their standard ice coffee.
Ice coffee is brewed coffee which is chilled and served with ice. It is a very popular drink. I can still remember pouring it for some of our Chicago customers with snow laying on the ground outside. Weird.
The problem with ice coffee is that when coffee is served at lower temperatures, the brighter (lemony, lime etc) notes are accentuated. The sweeter (caramel, chocolaty) notes are somewhat lost. This makes for a very, very thin, bright drink…not everyone’s cup of tea (excuse the pun!)
For me, the challenge is to make nitro coffee taste as far different from ice coffee as is possible. Nitro in the coffee leads to a naturally better, smoother mouthfeel and more rounded body. However, it is the selection of the coffee and the roasting profiles which can really make a difference. Remember, ice coffee is bright and bittery….so if you want something diametrically opposed to that, you need to roast accordingly.
I’ve gone one step further. Our roaster was specifically chosen because of its capacity to roast more body into the coffee beans at every level of roasting. This is achieved by using an almost unique direct-heat process during roasting (I’ll leave the full explanation of this to another blog). The end result is a sweeter, bolder nitro coffee.
So let’s just list the factors influencing nitro coffee quality….
1. Bean quality. You can’t roast good into bad beans. Quality beans with the right cupping characteristics must be the starting point for this process.
2. Roasting profiles. Artisan roasters will roast on roasting profiles they have developed over their years roasting coffee. What is a roasting profile? Briefly, it is a graph (time on the horizontal axis, temperature on the vertical axis) tracking the temperature over the time taken to roast the coffee. Nitro coffee needs a suitable roasting profile.
3. Correct infusion levels of nitrogen. Some are only adding the nitro at the point of dispensing the drink into the glass. This will lead to the head on the nitro disappearing pretty quickly and leaving you with a disappointingly flat black drink in the glass.
4. Temperature. Nitro coffee must be served chilled. Period.
5. Dispensing pressure.
Who drinks nitro coffee?
Nitro coffee is popular amongst millennial’s and Generation Y’ers….not so much the older generation. Specialty coffee drinkers – especially those who enjoy chilled coffee drinks – will enjoy nitro coffee…….. those who like to try something different….and those who want to enjoy a good jolt of caffeine….I can assure you, nitro kicks!
So I hope that answers your question. If not, feel free to comment and I’ll get back to you….
The Bean Whisperer.